The world's top cross-country mountain bikers are converging in Albstadt, Germany this week for the first round of the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup. It will be the first weekend of racing this year for the world's best to test their legs and lungs against world-class competition.
Last year, the World Cup calendar was severely shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant there were only two weekends of World Cup cross-country racing, which were both held in Nové Město na Moravě in the Czech Republic. The only other top-level race was the World Championships in Leogang, Austria. This year, however, there are six races scheduled, plus the World Championships and Tokyo Olympic games.
The Olympic mountain bike race will add another element to the racing drama. Racers need to be selected for their countries' Olympic teams, so the opening World Cups will be hot with action as riders hope to make the cut.
Below are our picks of the top riders to watch at this weekend's race. Longtime standouts like Nino Schurter and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot will line up with young stars like Evie Richards and Tom Pidcock, but there's always room for surprises.
Ferrand-Prévot is the current women's XCO World Champion and first on the UCI's world rankings. Last year, the Frenchwoman showed incredible consistency, never missing the podium during the World Cup season. Successful across cycling disciplines, this year she is focusing on mountain biking with the ultimate goal of the Tokyo Olympics.
Last year, Lecomte won the opening World Cup XCO round in Nove Mesto. She won at World Champs too, where she raced in the U23 field instead of elite. It will be exciting to see what the young Frenchwoman can do on the heels of more established riders like Ferrand-Prévot.
As a former World Champion and World Cup overall winner, Courtney is one of the stars of the sport. However, her 2020 season was not as successful as years past. Courtney will almost certainly be selected to represent the United States at the Olympics, but the pressure will still be on her to perform. Last weekend, she placed second at the Swiss Bike Cup.
Richards had a breakout performance last year, winning both World Cup short track races. In the XCOs, the young Briton was not as successful but still showed promise, pedaling to two top-10 finishes. We'll be watching to see if Richards can keep her consistency from last year.
Neff has been World Champion, World Cup overall champion, and won plenty of World Cups. At the beginning of 2020, she suffered serious injuries in a training crash, which makes her sixth-place finish at World Champs even more impressive. She will be a constant threat to the podium this year.
It's only logical to begin with the current men's XCO World Champion. Sarrou missed the podium during the shortened World Cup season but was the best on the day during World Champs in Leogang. The Frenchman mastered the tough course in muddy conditions, so he'll be one to watch if things get wet.
Avancini is currently the top-ranking male cross-country racer. Last year, the Brazilian won both the short track race and XCO race during the same World Cup weekend in Nove Mesto. He slipped back to 10th at World Champs, but he's a perennial favorite in any race he enters.
After showing promise in the U23 ranks, Andreassen stormed into the elite field and took the win at last year's opening World Cup XCO round in Nove Mesto. The Dane has limited elite World Cup experience but is a junior World Champion in both cross-country and cyclo-cross.
After dominating the sport for years, Schurter needs no introduction. At 35, the Swiss racer is one of the oldest in the bunch, but as he has aged, he has also shown great consistency. That experience will serve him well during this Olympic year.
This year, Pidcock joined the Ineos Grenadiers team to race on the road after standout results as a junior and U23 racer. He is the current U23 XCO World Champion, e-MTB World Champion, and the U23 World Cup overall winner. The Briton announced that he will be racing World Cups this year as he seeks selection for the Tokyo Olympics, and he just won the Swiss Bike Cup last weekend. However, big names like Schurter and Avancini weren't there, so we'll see how he does in a fully packed field.
With so much firepower in the World Cup fields, it's almost offensive to call these honorable mentions. But unless you want to read a book-length article, we have to cut the list somewhere.
In the women's field, we'll be watching Eva Lechner and Rebecca McConnell, two riders who finished second and third at last year's World Championships, respectively. Anne Terpstra also had a great season with second-place finishes at both World Cup XCO races.
For the men, we have to mention Mathieu van der Poel. The Dutchman has seen success on the mountain bike before, but as he has been focusing on the road the past few years, we'll have to see if he finds his way to the front of the MTB pack.
Another young rider we'll be watching is Alan Hatherly, who had two top-10 results last year and is riding for Cannondale Factory Racing alongside Andreassen. Kiwi Anton Cooper has never made an elite World Cup podium but is a U23 World Champion. Will this be his year where he breaks into the top five?
The racing action kicks off on May 7 at 15:20 GMT for the short track races. Coverage of the women's XCO race starts at 9:00 GMT on May 9, with the men's race starting three hours later. The races can be streamed for free through Red Bull TV in most countries.
Stay tuned to BikePerfect for continued coverage of the mountain bike World Cup season.